Move over, Beijing. Just weeks after national economic planners declared they would build the area around China’s capital into a 100-million strong megacity, researchers at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) are arguing that another superlative cluster is emerging around Shanghai.
In a featured article in CASS’ latest Blue Book of Urban Competitiveness, authors Ni Pengfei and Li Mian bestow the new region with the unwieldy official title of “Hu-Su-Zhe-Wan Yangtze Delta Super-Economic Region”. Potentially mystifying at first glance, the first four syllables respectively refer to abbreviations for Shanghai and the super-region’s component provinces of Jiangsu, Zhejiang, and Anhui. (For most of the paper, the authors thankfully shorten the name to just Hu-Su-Zhe-Wan or Yangtze Delta).
The super-region is roughly the same size as Germany or Montana, covers 40 cities, houses 215 million people, and accounts for about a quarter of China’s economic output. It sounds impressive, but the author’s caution that it remains a work in progress.
Strictly speaking, the term Yangtze Delta refers to the lands around the lower reaches of the Yangtze River, but in practice it is synonymous with the ever-expanding region of economic dynamism that has benefited from being in Shanghai’s tailwind. The authors show how over two decades the Delta has expanded from a narrow belt of cities abetting Shanghai to a larger region that encompasses some of China’s leading second-tier cities, including Suzhou, Hangzhou, Nanjing and Ningbo. The proposed Hu-Su-Zhe-Wan area can be read as a kind of challenge: a call to ensure that the Yangtze Delta’s momentum continues to fan outward from its current “core” and spreads its good fortune to the remainder of the mooted super-region.
The CASS essay argues that the integration process is actually already underway. Transport infrastructure has played and will continue to play a crucial role, with highways, bridges, and high-speed rail steadily growing the roster of cities that are within two-hours’ travel time of Shanghai – considered a prerequisite for sharing in the core area’s sphere of economic influence. According to the CASS report, by 2020 almost every city in the super-region’s three provinces will be linked into this “Two-hour economic circle”. Meanwhile, the author’s marshal gravity models and other measures to show that in terms of transport access, markets, industries, and overall economics, the super-region’s core and outer areas have already begun to coalesce into a single unit, after decades of growing apart as Shanghai and other coastal cities split off from the pack.
Statistics and infrastructure ambitions aside, however, it remains clear that the Yangtze Delta’s existing “core” area has a huge head start over the rest of the super-region. Northern Zhejiang and southern Jiangsu together constitute one of China’s richest and most urbanized regions, which together with Shanghai account for about 70% of the super-region’s current GDP all by themselves. Meanwhile, Chinese people regularly equate Anhui Province with rural poverty, and official statistics show that incomes in most of Anhui and northern Jiangsu are below the national average.
CASS acknowledges there are challenges to the super-region realizing its goals: economic and bureaucratic bottlenecks lead to congestion and spiraling house prices in Shanghai and other core cities, all while development potential in the outer cities goes untapped. The researchers raise concerns about a lack of long-term strategy for fostering the region’s integration, local protectionism getting in the way of regional cooperation, a lack of regional-level administration, inefficient industrial clustering and a lack of innovation, and uncoordinated development of different transport modes and utilities. Addressing these problems will be key to remaking Hu-Su-Zhe-Wan into a unified regional powerhouse, rather than the lopsided marriage of a prosperous core and undeveloped rump that it resembles today.
The CASS essay claims that in the twenty-first century, competition between nations will increasingly be settled with contests between their leading cities and city clusters. With this in mind, the authors argue that whatever its growing pains, the Yangtze Delta super-region is the only part of China advanced enough to eventually go toe-to-toe with other global city regions like America’s eastern seaboard and Japan’s Tokyo-Osaka conurbation. Who knows? If China’s development mandarins can successfully eliminate barriers to the country’s regional development, Hu-Su-Zhe-Wan may give Bos-Wash a run for its money.
(A version of this article first appeared on Tea Leaf Nation. Images and text are re-used here with their permission.)